These samurai devotees bring a cherished culture back to life

A photographer’s search for his Japanese identity leads him to rediscover the past in the present.

By Gail Tsukiyama
Published 2 Feb 2022, 09:33 GMT
departments-03.2022-samurai-general
At Japan’s Soma Nomaoi Festival, armor-clad participants, some of whom have samurai ancestry, parade and race on horseback. Here, Mitsuo Abe—in everyday life, a dealer in antique armor—dresses as a type of samurai called go-taisho, a battalion general.
Photograph by P H O T O G R A P H S B Y RYOTARO HORIUCHI

After years of making images outside of Japan, Ryotaro Horiuchi turned the camera toward his home country. As he questioned what constitutes Japanese identity—and his own identity as a Japanese person—he began looking into matsuri, the communal celebrations held in every region of Japan since ancient times.

When Horiuchi attended Fukushima Prefecture’s Soma Nomaoi Festival, where samurai descendants and devotees dress in armour and compete on horseback each July, he was “overwhelmed and moved by the power and human aspect,” he says.

For her portrait, Miwa Hosokawa is outfitted as a cavalry warrior, known as a kiba. During the festival, she cares for the participants’ mounts, using skills she has developed through her work on a horse ranch.
Photograph by P H O T O G R A P H S B Y RYOTARO HORIUCHI
A onetime civil servant, Yukio Imada acts as a samurai-taisho, a company commander who supports the general of a battalion. To intimidate opponents, his headdress features an oni, a fearsome creature in Japanese folklore.
Photograph by P H O T O G R A P H S B Y RYOTARO HORIUCHI
Katsunao Kamo’s training as an armorer helped him suit up properly for his role as a gunja, a samurai who aids the chief of staff and vice chief of staff. Kamo, now deceased, also managed the festival’s general affairs.
Photograph by P H O T O G R A P H S B Y RYOTARO HORIUCHI
Most days, Yuichi Takahashi leads a construction company. As a festival osakinori, he leads the samurai marching cavalry and festival spirits and oversees the safety of the route. The armor he wears dates from the late 1500s to early 1600s.
Photograph by P H O T O G R A P H S B Y RYOTARO HORIUCHI

The festival has been held for more than a thousand years; its origins lie in the military training of the lord of Soma’s samurai, who dedicated their lives to protecting his. Today’s participants take inspiration from the discipline, honour, and loyalty practiced by the samurai—values that have helped them persevere through life’s adversities, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the Soma area of Fukushima in 2011 and caused a nuclear disaster.

Hearing stories of these modern-day festival-goers and seeing the strength of their conviction, Horiuchi knew that his next project would be an attempt to “capture their personalities and their identity as a samurai.”

The past shapes the present for samurai admirers. Throughout the history of the festival, attendees have adapted to the evolving times without relinquishing their connection to the samurai. And through these portraits, Horiuchi has found his own sense of self—one that shifts with changes in time and place but preserves the spirit of tradition.

Tradition meets modernity: Samurai descendant and festival follower Mitsukiyo Monma sometimes trades a horse for a Harley.
Photograph by P H O T O G R A P H S B Y RYOTARO HORIUCHI

Gail Tsukiyama is a best-selling author whose novels include The Samurai’s Garden, Women of the Silk, and The Color of Air.

This story appears in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Read More

You might also like

Photography
Celebrating the proud culture behind Nigerian hairstyles
Photography
Where Demons, Deities, and Spirits Come Alive
History and Civilisation
What it’s like to scuba dive under pyramids
Environment and Conservation
See the remarkable richness of life in Europe’s old-growth forests
History and Civilisation
This ancient festival is a celebration of springtime—and a brand new year

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us

Subscribe

  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved